Of the fifth sultan of Bijapur, ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah I , there exist two very similar portraits, made within two decades of each other. Though dissimilar in style, palette and even rendering, both feature him in a petitioner’s pose, a dagger conspicuously sheathed at his side. The sword’s hilt is fashioned into a motif featuring a lion and an elephant in combat. In the earlier portrait made in the sultan’s lifetime sometime between 1570 and 1580, and currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the lion completely dominates the elephant. In the depiction from 1590, now at the National Museum of Asian Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, though still beset by the lion, the elephant looms large. The dagger of ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah might be telling us a story – about the political flux of the mediaeval Deccan and how it was conducted through the complicated interpersonal relationships of its kings.

Before deciphering the meaning of ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah I’s dagger, let us briefly survey the geopolitical lay of the basalt peninsula his realm was located in. Bijapur was established in 1490 as the capital of the Adil Shahi dynasty, one among five successors of the once mighty Bahmani Sultanate as it started fracturing (the others were Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar and Golconda). The 1500s were a time of alternating conflict and detente between and among the various states of the Deccan – the northern sultanates of Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, Bidar and Golconda and the powerful Vijayanagara Empire south of the Krishna river. A complex choreography of intimacies and feuds centred on the territorial jewel of Kalyana culminated in the sultanates uniting against and defeating Vijayanagara at the decisive Battle of Talikota in 1565. This devastation weakened the latter’s power for good and transformed forever the politics of the plateau.

Along with Nizam Shahi Ahmadnagar and Qutb Shahi Golconda, the Adil Shahi sultanate was already emerging as a robust state before this victory over Vijayanagara. After the victory, it blossomed into a culturally efflorescent court as well, through the late 16th and 17th centuries. As art historian Deborah Hutton points out in The Art of the Court of Bijapur, “Undoubtedly, the 1565 victory and the subsequent political and economic boons transformed the kingdom, significantly augmenting its ability to undertake monumental artistic endeavours…” In fact, she notes, almost no extant Bijapuri painting can be dated to before 1570, that is, before the reign of ‘Ali.

Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Not just Bijapur’s golden age but the dagger ‘Ali wears in his portraits might have both a historical and iconographic connection to the Battle of Talikota. In her note on the 1570-’80 painting at the Met in the book Sultans of the Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy, the museum’s Curator in Charge of the Department of Islamic Art Navina Najat Haidar speculates that the weapon came to the sultan via one of two routes – as a war trophy from Talikota or, more intriguingly, as a gift from his opponent at that battlefield, Rama Raya. The generalissimo regent of Vijayanagara may have presented him the weapon when “he [‘Ali] reportedly visited the capital of Vijayanagara during times of peace and was received with honour”. Who was this personage, whom ‘Ali was not only crossing swords with but also, potentially, receiving them from, in friendship? And what did the painted dagger’s “sculptural hilt with a lion dominating an elephant” signify?

Son-in-law of the Tuluva Emperor Krishna Deva Raya, warden of his nephew, the last heir standing, and thus de facto ruler of Vijayanagara, Rama Raya was a serious power player in the 16th century Deccan. Like all Deccan monarchs, Rama Raya too engaged in acts of both alliance and antagonism vis-à-vis his neighbours, at times extending protection and other times inflicting punishment. At various points in Rama Raya’s reign, Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, Bidar and Golconda were either confederates or nemeses of Vijayanagara. Amidst the intrigues of the plateau, a more personal bond seems to have been struck up between Bijapur’s ‘Ali and Rama Raya when the former ascended to his throne in 1558. Quoting the 17th-century tarikh by the Deccan chronicler Firishta, historian Richard Eaton summarises their first meeting in his essay Rama Raya: Élite Mobility in a Persianized World: “...the sultan rode virtually alone to Vijayanagara…to convey personal condolences on the death of Rama Raya’s son…the two men exchanged robes and feasted; Rama Raya’s wife even called the sultan her own son (farzand).”

The invocation of familiality between the suratranas – the Sanskrit translation of sultan, adopted as a title by the Vijayanagara monarchs – was not entirely surprising. The strategic politico-military switching of loyalties among the Deccan dynasties through the first half of the 16th century shows that despite differences in genealogies and faiths, the peninsular kingdoms shared many interests and affinities. Further, effected by the patron class and the regular migrations of workers and officials from court to court, a composite regional identity emerged during this period in the sociocultural sphere, straddling many languages, religions and ethnicities – a mosque that looks like a temple, a Persian illustrated manuscript annotated in Kannada, and the hybridisation of Telugu, Marathi and Hindawi into Dakhni. Rama Raya’s own trans-Krishna movements and manoeuvres gesture towards this, as Eaton shows, going on to argue that the mediaeval Deccan developed a “common, Persian culture in the whole region”. This shared heritage was apparent not just in the words for ‘king’ but also symbolic vocabulary, such as the iconographies that bound the region. Among these are the animal motifs adorning ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah I’s dagger, which, though standard elements of Deccan weaponry, take on new meanings in the context of the Battle of Talikota and the intimate enmities of its participants, including ‘Ali and Rama Raya.

The bone of contention in the Deccan was control over the Chalukyan capital of Kalyana, to which all five kingdoms laid claim. Too far north across the Krishna for him to directly command, Rama Raya, Easton says, “endeavoured to ensure that whichever northern sultan he was at the moment allied with also controlled Kalyana”. While filial consolation may indeed have been in order, what motivated ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah I to visit Rama Ray was the retrieval of the Kalyana fort from Ahmadnagar. Seething with vengefulness at Rama Raya’shand in his losses, Ahmadnagar’s Nizam Shahi ruler launched a campaign of marital and military alliances that crescendoed with the Battle of Talikota at which he beheaded his foe.

Throughout a quarter century of plots and counterplots, the plateau’s kingdoms also became increasingly familiar with each other’s ways and worldviews. As both the actual recorded events and the synthesis of a syncretic culture in their region attest to, the “sphere of politics” too is “suggestive of the deep intimacy that existed among these courts”, in the words of historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam. In his essay Courtly Insults, he unpacked an archive of affront as the throughline of the prompts for the Deccan wars in the 16th century underscoring that “the radical opposition between Vijayanagara and its northern neighbours was never a political, diplomatic, or even familial reality”. The exchange of insults seems to have manifested also on walls and hilts.

Visual trope

According to art historian Gijs Kruijtzer in his essay The Fighting on the Walls: Animal Symbolism of the Deccan in a Eurasian Perspective, in the Deccan, “depictions of animal combat were particularly prominent through their presence in public life on weaponry…and in architecture.” Islamic kingdoms adopted lions and other big cats as representatives, in homage to their Central Asian ancestry. Non-Muslim clans chose from both felines and other animals, such as humans, boars and elephants, in turn reappropriating the coat of arms of previous rulers of the territory. By featuring their animal proxies in various modes of engagement, the kingdoms signalled hostility or magnanimous condescension towards various rivals – though architect and historian Pushkar Sohoni in his essay Old fights, new meanings: Lions and elephants in combat, cautions that given the retention of imagery across successive dynasties, “perceived correspondences between dynasty and animal…[can be]... fallacious”. One among a plethora of ancient Eurasian heraldic emblems signifying conquest and potence, the image of the lion and the elephant in combat was a long-established visual trope in the subcontinent. Kruijtzer traces the lineage of this formula to Central Asian Greek and Iranic invasions of North India before the Common Era. By the 9th century CE, the form had achieved mainstream popularity, notes Sohoni, as is evident from the appearance of a Sanskrit term mirroring the visual fusion of elephant and lion – gajasimha.

The gajasimha is visible on the walls of the Golconda Fort, observes Kruijtzer, enumerating multiple combinations of attitudes and arrangements constituting its reliefs. Dating these architectural embellishments to 1559, Kruijtzer connects them to the events leading, once again, up to the all-important Battle of Talikota. In one example of “counter-symbolism…against Vijayanagara”, a relief seems to quote an existing Vijayanagara scene of a feline being overpowered by an elephant and humans, but then inverts it so that the lion vanquishes its prey, untroubled by a an overawed human hunter. It’s also worth remembering that in 1563, as Subrahmanyam points out, having been attacked and humiliated by Rama Raya, the Qutb Shahi sultan of Golconda ordered this fort to be further fortified, possibly adding sculptural devices that literally projected his desire for vengeance. Interestingly, Vijayanagara itself had subdued elephants at one time: commenting on a Bijapuri dagger at the Met contemporaneous to ‘Ali’s painted ones, Haidar relays speculation by arms historian Robert Elgood that the Deccan gajasimha possibly bore the memory of “Vijayanagarar’s defeat of the Gajapati [‘elephant lords’] dynasty of Orissa in the fourteenth century”.

Clearly, the lion and elephant ornamenting ‘Ali’s Bijapuri dagger stand for the houses of the victor and the vanquished, in keeping with zoomorphic iconography legible across the region. In his essay Swords in the Deccan in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Their Manufacture and the Influence of European Imports, Elgood draws our attention to Vijayanagara’s influence on Bijapuri daggers, particularly in the aftermath of Talikota, when both ‘Ali’s portraits were painted: “There was a strong reluctance by Hindus to abandon the traditional weapon forms…[they] continued to be made in the former Vijayanagara lands, which then circulated to the rest of the Bijapur kingdom.” Further, refugee painters from Rama Raya’s court migrated to ‘Ali Adil Shah I’s court, seeding his sultanate’s later belle epoque. This phenomenon, coupled with the chance that Rama Raya himself bequeathed the dagger to ‘Ali, complicates interpretations of its hilt design in the paintings.

Decrypting a cipher

As we saw, the lion-elephant figure is commonplace in the Deccan. But given the gajasimha’s self-aggrandising deployment by the peninsular kingdoms and their knowing rebuttals and resignifications through architectural and armorial mediums, the dagger’s implications in the post-Talikota moment seem multivalent. The hilt could well be a specific reference to the historic battle that facilitated the kingdom’s prosperity. Could it be a record of a spoil of war that revises who the lion is and who the elephant is? It might also be an accurate portrayal of the contribution of Vijayanagari artists and metalworkers to the weaponry of Bijapur. Or perhaps, like the combats between the sultans and the surutrana, the remembrance is of a more personal nature, a cryptic tribute to a familiar figure, through the memorialisation of a gift. Or perhaps, it is, after all, simply a classic Deccan boast about Bijapur’s superiority.

In an email exchange, Kruitjzer emphasises “the need to look wider in texts, reliefs etc., at who identified with what animal”. He points out that rulers of Vijayanagara seem to have identified themselves with the human figure, weakening the theory that the dagger was a gift from Rama Raya: “Would he have wanted to associate ‘Ali with a victorious lion? Most likely in my view is that it was commissioned by or for ‘Ali, who is to be seen as the lion.” Who then might have been the elephant? “The elephant can represent all sorts of lords and kings that he might have wanted to contain or keep in check,” he said. “The scene is not so much one of violent combat as of containment, recognising the strength of the opponent.”

Across a number of accounts of the battle studied by Subrahmanyam, two details are striking. Firstly, in his final moments, Rama Raya seems, in an ironic reversal of a thousand representational encounters, to have been charged at by an elephant and thrown to the ground from his mount (a throne or a horse). The Vijayanagara Empire seems to have been, in fact, felled by a real elephant. Secondly, in two tellings of the tale, ‘Ali ‘Adil Shahi I tried to intervene in a bid to prevent the Vijayanagari generalissimo from being executed. In a version by the Ahmadnagar chronicler Tabataba, when ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah I came to hear of Rama Raya’s capture, he set out on foot to request his release. A similar narrative by the Portuguese chronicler Diogo Do Couto reports that, on learning that Rama Raya had fallen, ‘Ali “arrived with great speed to free him, for he was so much his friend that he called him father…and he already found him headless, which weighed on him in the extreme.”

The fact that neither of these accounts belongs to Bijapur lends them some credence. In fact the former one is from the court of the very Nizam Shahi ruler who ultimately decapitated Rama Raya. In ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah I’s dagger, there is another, likely unintended layer of piquant symbolism: the inheritance of power from fictive father to son. Amidst the animal ambiguities of the Deccan, there was, too, a human connection.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.